XPS printing in Vista

Some things fly under the radar from a technology standpoint. Printing is one of those things.

Some things fly under the radar from a technology standpoint. Printing is one of those things. I don't have a lot of conversations with industry PR people in my role as ZDNet blogger, mostly because the types of blog posts I write don't really fit such topics. XPS, however, or the "XML Paper Specification," is a new technology Microsoft introduced with Vista, and over which Microsoft and Adobe had a rather public tussle given that some consider it a potential competitor to PDF.

Given that history, when I heard from a PR representative for Konica-Minolta regarding new XPS support in printers released by the company, I decided to give them a listen. That led to a phone meeting with Kevin Kern, VP of Product Planning & Development at Konica-Minolta.

XPS is a format for describing digital documents that is used natively by the printer spool in Windows Vista. Built as a subset of XAML (the XML format used to specify the layout of user interfaces in .NET 3.0), Microsoft has released the specification under a royalty-free patent license. To back this up, they've published a "Community Promise for XPS that assures people that Microsoft really, really won't sue implementers of the technology. In an FAQ linked to the promise, Microsoft assures readers that no one will have to sign anything to be subject to the promise (in other words, the promise is universal, so sublicensing is unnecessary).

There has even been some talk of Microsoft submitting XPS to a standards body, a move possibly instigated by the European Commission. I'll need to look into that, as I didn't find anything more about it on the web.

Konica-Monilta, according to Kern, is one of the first companies to release a printer that supports the new XPS printing subsystem introduced with Vista as well as the new Web Services for Devices (WSD) specifications. This means that an XPS file is at some point passed directly to the printer, making it the job of the printer to interpret what that document means. XPS, in other words, acts like a low-level common document format given that all applications, if they are to print the XPS way, must convert at some point to an XPS document.

This has a number of advantages over older GDI printer technology. Before, applications created what was essentialy a bitmap representation of what the printer should print. With XPS, printer spools are much smaller, both due to integrated ZIP-based compression that is used to package together all pieces of an XPS file as well as structural advantages, like the fact that a common page header and footer can be included once in the XPS package and referenced by each page in the document.

Second, XPS supposedly improves color representation and offers higher-fidelity printed output, making XPS-based printers closer in performance to commercial-grade varieties. Though I couldn't confirm this (I don't have an XPS printer), what did occur to me was that if the printer is handling its own XPS interpretation, if you like how colors are reproduced or image gradiants rendered on pages printed in the store, you can be assured it will look the same way back in the office (and across applications).

I asked Kern if this might lead to some future nirvana where printer drivers aren't needed anymore, replaced by a universal driver that does little more than pitch an XPS document at a printer and trigger a print job. The answer was no, as there are still a lot of settings that aren't defined in an XPS document (though he did indicate that an XPS driver core could be reused by a manufacturer, thus offering more driver consistency). Those printer-specific settings, however, can be detected more easily by other devices on the network. Though WSD doesn't imply "pitch and print" functionality, it is something that assists the auto-detection and setting of printer capabilities.

Whatever the case, it occurs to me that printers are moving to a realm where less custom code is necessary to drive them. Though they haven't reached the level of "pitch a file via web service and go," printers have certainly moved further down the path towards first-class, self-sufficient devices on the local network versus slaves of a machine to which they are connected.

Printers are even starting to have built-in security. Konica-Minolta has built biometric features into certain high-end printers that ensure output only occurs when the owner is physically present. Further, for situations where the data cache on a printer / scanner might constitute a serious security breach (for instance, at the NSA, or more common, at companies that process loan applications using a scanner and Optical Character Recognition (OCR)), you can have the entire local drive encrypted.

XPS is an interesting advance in printer technology in Windows, and one that might even appeal to the open source community. Furthermore, a free and open specification that serves as foundation for printers that work with Vista would seem a boon to other platforms.  It certainly seems like there are no legal barriers to its implementation. But, if there are, I'm sure someone will tell me about them in the Talkbacks.


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